IN THE LIFE
A Review of The Beautiful Room is Empty
by Edmund White
New York: Knopf
Review Copyright © 1988 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
In his fifth novel Edmund White contributing editor for Christopher Street; former director of the New York Institute for the Humanities; co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex and of The Darker Proof; author of the gay travel guide States of Desire and of the remarkable surreal fictions Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, and Caracole returns to the autobiographical form he used successfully to tell the tale of A Boy's Own Story.
This time, however, the boy has grown to be a youth. We first meet the narrator of The Beautiful Room is Empty, called Mr. Larkin by one teacher but otherwise referred to only as "Bunny" by a few of his lovers, in his last year at Eton, a midwestern prep school located near Detroit and across the alley from an art school modeled loosely on the famed Cranbrook Academy. Through the course of the novel he attends college at the University of Michigan, graduates, and moves on to young adulthood in New York with summer-long stops at both his homophobic father's country house and at his prissy mother's 24th floor apartment on Chicago's wealthy Gold Coast. White recapitulates the pains and pleasures of growing up gay in the days when homosexuality was seen as a "pathetic malady," and not a condition of being human: when gay bohemians at least pretended to be swish and referred to themselves by feminine pronouns; when gay men were persuaded to mistake culturally-induced depression for signs of erotically-induced mental instability; and when psychiatrists claimed they could cure the disease:
I was still seeing Dr. O'Reilly, the psychiatrist I'd first consulted in prep school, desperately trying to go straight. He'd told me I couldn't attend Harvard but must remain at the local university to be near him. "I'm the only one who can save you, old boy," he'd said, "because I love you and you know it."
Since queers were made, not born, it was presumed they could also be unmade:
... my father thought he would drive the queerness out of me through manual labor. For weeks we had circled each other wordlessly, my father up on a ladder, me with my eternal rake and wheelbarrow, his anger between us, mysterious as the stone the Muslims worship. Since he know how to cook nothing but steaks, every night we'd sit wordlessly over plates overflowing with fat and blood. He'd read the newspaper. I couldn't guess why he hated me so much. In the past I'd always welcomed his indifference, since that was what I felt for him, though I took care to hide it, but his program of hatred frightened me. My stepmother told me my mother had accused my father over the phone of having brought about my "sickness" through his absence; my father was countering the charge by administering to me his grim discipline.
The protracted adolescence of mid-century America was nightmare enough for boys who had to figure out who girls were in order to get near them; for boys who had to figure out who girls were in order to get near them in order to stay away from them, life was another order of complicated.
Since I'd read so many books about heterosexual sex and was specially well informed about the mysteries of the clitoris, my frat brothers thought I was a secret cocksman....
The frowsy, boozy camaraderie of the fraternity amounted to permissiveness. The brothers frequently said to one another, "You're not a pervert," but they were referring to yet another lapful of beerbarf or a vaunted preference for cunnilingus ("oyster diving" or "beaver heaven"). Of course they didn't even whisper about a real perversion such as mine.
Yet, Bunny's youth is saved in part by his occasionally sexual friendship with an artist named Maria, who is surprised one day to learn he does not know that she, too, is gay.
In the city of night at last, reading Rechy and Burroughs, Bunny falls in love with a boy as eager as he is to be saved from his dreadful vice but who, more fragile than Bunny, becomes psychotic in a group meant to cure him. Despairing over his lost love, Bunny finally falls in with like-minded men who are also more sophisticated than he, and who induct him into something like a graduate school of gay life. "A gay bar, a cruisy toilet that I understood, but a gay restaurant? The suggestion that gay men, like Negroes, might want to enjoy one another's company astounded me.
Finally, having come to adult terms with his own identity, the 29-year-old Bunny goes out for drinks with an older friend and former lover on an historic night in Manhattan.
The night was hot. We gay guys had taken over all of Christopher Street; even the shops were gay. Although the bars were owned by the Mafia, we somehow thought of them as ours. Just as this street, this one street in a city of ten thousand streets, felt like ours.
In the Stonewall the dance floor had been taken over by Latins....
Then the music went off, and the bar was full of cops.... We kept exchanging peripheral glances, excited and afraid. I had an urge to be responsible and disperse the crowd peacefully, send everyone home. After all, what were we protesting? Our right to our "pathetic malady"?
But in spite of myself a wild exhilaration swept over me.... Someone beside me called out, "Gay is good," in imitation of the new slogan, "Black is beautiful," and we all laughed and pressed closer to the door. The traffic on Christopher had come to a standstill.... Now someone said, "We're the Pink Panthers," and that made us laugh again. Then I caught myself foolishly imagining that gays might someday constitute a community rather than a diagnosis....
The riot squad was called in....
Edmund White grew up in the world he describes, and knows it intimately. He writes with authority about coming out in the toilet stalls of the university student union and exchanging conspiratorial winks in public with companions from those damp floors. He knows from personal experience the difficulties of finding love in a world where everybody thinks the nature of his love is shameful. And he knows from inside the schizy dilemma of earning a daytime living in a world of straights who believe adamantly if only on faith what the doctors and lawyers tell them about faggots and queers, then cruising the hot Greenwich Village summer streets at night.
Edmund White's story Bunny's story is not new in its general outline: thousands of men have written something like it, hundreds of them good, dozens of them famous. What sets White's writing apart from the crowd is partly the precision of his language and partly the precision of his observations. For Edmund White is not just a "gay writer" any more than Cynthia Ozick is just a "woman writer" or Walker Percy is just a "southern writer." The particulars of his life inform and are the substance of his art, of course. But like his equals with other special interests, White is a novelist of such ingenuity and grace that what is personal in his work becomes transcendent. Being gay never ceases to be his narrator's life issue, but it is an issue that speaks to any other person's issue too, and shows us all the lies and foibles by which we may stand if we choose to live only half-lives, and which we learn to grow beyond if we become thoroughly human.
Another facet of White's work that makes it noteworthy is that it continues to grow and fill a universe, despite the author's deeply tragic sense of life. The last paragraph of The Beautiful Room is Empty takes place on the temporal edge of history.
I stayed over at Lou's. We hugged each other in bed like brothers, but we were too excited to sleep. We rushed down to buy the morning papers to see how the Stonewall Uprising had been described. "It's really our Bastille Day," Lou said. But we couldn't find a single mention in the press of the turning point of our lives.
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.